Visitors today might think of Raby Castle as a ‘museum’, but this is not the only time in its history where it has been considered as such. In the first half of the 19th century, Elizabeth (c.1777-1861)—the second wife to the 1st Duke of Cleveland (1766-1842)—compiled at Raby ‘a most curious Museum of Natural History, collected with much care, skill and attention’ [1]. This museum, however, was not to everybody’s taste. Nor did it survive beyond the mid-19th century.  During 2020, Raby intern Dorothea Fox has studied the collection at Raby Castle as part of her postgraduate studies at Durham University. Here she reflects on her findings and what they tell us about Raby’s past.

Elizabeth (c.1777-1861), 2nd wife of the 1st Duke of Cleveland who established a “most curious Museum of Natural History” at Raby Castle.

So what happened to Raby’s Museum of Natural History? It is likely that the collection of ‘museum’ objects was disassembled during restoration work between 1843-1850. After that time, the taxidermy and natural-history collection were moved from room to room until a suitable home could be found for them. The movement of these objects was recounted by the 4th Duchess of Cleveland in her Handbook to Raby Castle. This year marks the 150th anniversary since the publication of her guidebook—an important resource to understanding the history of the house.

The 1st Duchess’s museum was located in the Barons’ Hall. With dimensions of 132 feet by 36 feet by 32 feet, this was an impressive space in which to exhibit her natural-history collection. Not only that, but the space carried with it the powerful memories of former times. In many accounts, it is noteworthy for entertaining 700 knights and retainers of the Nevill family at once, and for being the site where, on 13 November 1569, a great council of northern nobles decided upon an insurrection against the Crown—the fatal ‘Rising of the North’.

By the time of Raby Castle’s 1842 inventory, there is a sub-heading, ‘The Museum’, under the section on the Barons’ Hall. It is described as ‘consisting of various glazed cases of specimens of Natural History, Cabinets, Indian Curiosities, and Oriental Porcelain’.  An article from 1833, which featured in the American women’s magazine, Lady’s Book, sheds more light on the diverse objects:

‘The rough inmates of the forest, harmless as the fierce barons who once feasted beneath the fretted roof, are chained in mimic life to guard the doors. Handsome glass cabinets are arranged around the walls, enriched with all that mineralogy can yield, mingled with shells, fossils, bones, dried specimens of animal and vegetable life, works of art, and relics of the olden times. Several articles connected with the worship of the Catholic Church are here preserved. Amongst others, a curious cross, or rood, as it was anciently called, and a spoon set with precious stones, doubtless formerly used in the ceremony of consecration.’ [2]

While the author of this account is unknown, the castle and its museum were clearly deemed of interest to an American audience: whether as visitors or as readers of the magazine.

Displaying ‘natural’ matter alongside ‘cultural’ artefacts corresponds to the idea of the ‘cabinet of curiosity’. Across Early Modern Europe, collectors, curators and visitors were driven by inquisitiveness into objects that were rare and unexpected, producing eclectic wunderkammer—cabinets of wonders. While some private collectors like Duchess Elizabeth continued these practices, from the 18th-century ‘Enlightenment’ period there was a shift towards more narrowly-focused displays, paralleling the development of public museums and a division between the ‘arts’ and ‘sciences’.

But the cabinet of curiosity still presented a form of intellectual stimulation to those who were excluded from ‘academic’ study, particularly women. Processes of collecting and arranging nurtured their creativity, using the patterns and details of nature as a guide to aesthetic harmony. Moreover, it brought knowledge of science, archaeology, art and religion to bear on decorative practices, enabling women to engage with these subjects in a manner that was considered socially acceptable.

Historic display of tropical birds which probably formed part of the 1st Duchess’s museum. Still on show at Raby Castle.

The Portfolio magazine praised Duchess Elizabeth for these wider implications of her museum:

‘[she] has devoted a great portion of her attention to Improvements both in the castle and grounds, and has gone to considerable expense and labour in the formation of a museum, which bids fair to rival any private collection this country has to boast.’ [3]

There was logic in her transformation of the Barons’ Hall into a display room—a museum. Since its inception, the room was a decidedly public space. As a ‘medieval hall’, it would have received guests and followers; a single, open room in which people ate, entertained and slept. From the late eighteenth century, the Romantic movement revived an interest in medieval halls, converting them to suit contemporary purposes. The nineteenth-century architect, Augustus Welby Pugin, was anxious to restore these ‘capacious’ spaces so that the aristocracy ‘might exercise the rights of hospitality to their fullest extent’: where noble and humbler visitors ‘partook of their share of bounty dealt to them by the almoner’. [4]

Within the Barons’ Hall, therefore, noble hosts were expected to perform public acts of generosity and chivalry. These behaviours were thus adapted to the circumstances of the 1st Duchess. She demonstrated aristocratic munificence by offering an abundant, multicultural cornucopia—her own miniature world in which the diverse relics of natural and human history were assembled and made visible under glass cases.

Not all visitors, however, approved of Duchess Elizabeth’s curatorial vision. In 1828, The Sporting Magazine cautiously remarked that ‘[the Barons’ Hall] is now filled with all the curiosities of the mineral, vegetable, and animal world; but on this subject I am silent.’ [5] Meanwhile, the historian-tourist William Howitt, in his Visits to Remarkable Places (1842), complained that:

this hall, which should only display massy furniture, suits of armour, and arms and banners properly disposed, is converted into a museum of stuffed birds, Indian dresses, and a heap of other things which may be better and more numerously seen elsewhere. In fact, any ordinary room of this many-roomed castle might have served this need.’ [6]

Howitt clearly believed that this space should have been treated with utmost veneration for its medieval origins; glass cabinets of birds, insects and shells seemed out of place. This may relate to the ‘professionalisation’ of history across the nineteenth century, during which the boundaries of ‘history’ were demarcated from other subjects, such as those that came to be classified as ‘science’.

It is not certain when the museum was dismantled, but, as mentioned above, it probably coincided with the architectural renovations of 1843-1850. Elizabeth’s successor, Catherine Lucy Wilhelmina, the 4th Duchess of Cleveland, documented her criticisms of the natural history collection in her Handbook to Raby Castle (1870)—a guide to the house, its history, its contents and its inhabitants. This is despite the fact that the 4th Duchess never saw the museum in its intended layout.

Catherine Lucy Wilhelmina (1819-1901), 4th Duchess of Cleveland and author of the Handbook to Raby Castle.

Throughout the Handbook, the author implies a curatorial conflict with her predecessor. While the 1st Duchess lavished care and attention on the objects she compiled—valued so highly, they were granted ‘museum’ status—the 4th viewed them as something of a burden. Her relationship with the natural-history objects, and her efforts in rearranging them outside of a ‘museum’ context, were partially recounted in the Handbook.

The natural-history collection posed a formidable problem: how could the 4th Duchess integrate these objects into the lived-in spaces of the castle? She made no attempt to re-establish the Baron’s Hall museum—a decision which seemed to correspond to her belief that ‘the chief interest of Raby consists in its bringing so visibly before one of the long-past ages of feudalism’.

Accordingly, the Handbook pays special attention to listing the ‘gallery of fifty-four portraits, consisting almost entirely of family pictures’ in the Barons’ Hall. This was a product of the 4th Duchess’s direct curatorial intervention: ‘I found almost all these pictures taken down and piled up against the sides of the room, and felt the task of re-hanging them rather a weighty responsibility.’

The Barons’ Hall, Raby Castle, mid 19th century. This watercolour must have been painted not long after the museum was disbanded.

The 4th Duchess frowned upon the former arrangement of natural-history objects here, fashioning the Baron’s Hall into a ‘receptacle for all kinds of lumber’. She deplored the ‘old Duchess’ who ‘had even the common swans and foxes brought in to be stuffed’—native animals that possessed no value in peculiarity. She also ‘felt a positive regret at the money which … had been spent upon shells alone.’

In designating the 1st Duchess’s museum as ‘lumber’—cluttered odds and ends—the 4th separates herself from the then out-dated practice of the wunderkammer. In contrast, her priority for the Barons’ Hall was to draw attention towards its medieval connotations and its significance in the history of the family.

An assorted collection of natural and cultural objects might have appeared harmonious to Elizabeth, but in the eyes of Catherine it was a ‘great array’ of incongruous and indiscernible things—in stark contrast to her own vision for the Barons’ Hall.     Her Handbook can help to reveal to the afterlives of some of the natural-history objects once they had been removed from the Baron’s Hall. In what must have been a temporary measure, 51 cases of ‘preserved birds, animals and insects’ found their way into the Stucco Anteroom—a space that is minuscule in comparison with their previous home.

Unwilling to leave the anteroom ‘crammed with stuffed birds and beasts’, the 4th Duchess removed some to the Smoking Room, which they overflowed, and from there to ‘various remote and unfrequented parts of the castle’. In these dark and mysterious corners of the house, she left them ‘dwelling in strict retirement’. We also learn that during the time of the 2nd Duke, ‘three cartloads of spars and crystals’ were put into storage in the Bath House, situated about 800m south-west of the castle.

Other specimens and remains were simply given away: the 4th Duchess writes that she ‘was fortunate enough to dispose of [them] as presents to neighbouring amateurs.’

Not all of the animal, vegetable and mineral matter met the same fate. The Handbook mentions three stuffed creatures which its author managed to reconcile with her decorative arrangements for the Entrance Hall and Corridor: a platypus, a polar bear and a small crocodile. Some visitors may still remember the crocodile, which continued to inhabit the Entrance Hall into recent times.

Historic natural history displays at Raby continue to be appreciated as rooms are refurbished.

The story of Raby’s ‘Museum of Natural History’, therefore, is the story of two women—the 1st and 4th Duchesses of Cleveland—who took vastly different stances on value of these objects. In their divergent ways, these women demonstrated their aesthetic and intellectual visions for the castle.

The precise whereabouts of the huge natural-history collection compiled by the 1st Duchess is still something of a mystery; although glimpses can be found in the castle collections today. Even more of a mystery is what actually constituted the ‘Museum of Natural History’: what exactly were all the specimens, artefacts and remains that were once displayed in the Baron’s Hall museum? To trace the lives of these objects, animals and specimens—where they came from, when and how they entered Raby’s collection, and what happened to them after the disbanding of the ‘museum’—would certainly be an exciting journey of discovery.

If you enjoy discovering the stories behind Raby Castle and its fascinating collections, an Annual Pass gives free access to the Castle, Park and Gardens for 12 months.


[1]  Neale, J.P. (1818), Views of The Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen, in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, Vol. I., London: W.H. Reid, np.

[2]  ‘Raby Castle’, Lady’s Book, June 1833, p.280.

[3]  ‘Antiquities of Great Britain. No. II.’, The Portfolio of Amusement and Instruction in History, Science, Literature, the Fine Arts, &c., 14 October 1828, No.21, p.331.

[4]  Pugin, A.W. (1841), True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture, London: Henry G. Bohn, p.61.

[5]  ‘Nimrod’s Yorkshire Tour’, The Sporting Magazine, January 1828, Volume. 21, No. 71, p.203.

[6] Howitt, W. (1842), Visits to Remarkable Places: Old Halls, Battle Fields, and Scenes Illustrative of Striking Passages in History and Poetry: Chiefly in the Counties of Durham and Northumberland, London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, p.258.



Raby has gained a huge number of new Annual Pass holders this year, many of whom have taken the trouble to tell our team how much they have appreciated being able to access the outdoor spaces and enjoy nature at a time when everyone’s lives have been so restricted.

Peter and Elaine Gunton from Bishop Auckland became Annual Pass holders for the first time earlier this year, just before the first lockdown. In a year of restriction and uncertainty, Raby has become the perfect retreat for them and they have visited most days, watching the seasons change. They spoke to us about what spending time at Raby means to them.   

Your Annual Pass has been well used this year – what’s the best thing about it?  

We’re outdoors people and we love the wildlife, the trees, the gardens, the whole place. Being able to come here with our dog, every day if we want to, has meant such a lot to us, especially this year. We use it at High Force too, which is another fabulous place. We’ve visited so regularly that we worked out it had paid for itself in the first week – we just wish we had done it years ago!   

Deer Park by Peter Gunton


Having watched the seasons change in the Park and Gardens, has any particular time of year stood out?  

Every day is different, and there’s always something new to see, whether it’s the light on the castle, the colour of the leaves, the flowers in the gardens or the wildlife, it’s never the same two days running.

Hummingbird Hawk Moth by Peter Gunton


Do you have a favourite spot? 

There’s a bench over the hill by the top pond where we like to sit and relax. It’s so peaceful there and it really clears your mind. We like chatting to people as they pass or just simply enjoying the view. We love the gardens too, they’re incredible. They keep on giving, day after day and we enjoy chatting to the gardeners, who do a fantastic job. In the gardens there’s a sheltered place to sit, looking down towards the fountain, where we can enjoy the view even on a wet day.   

Raby Lake by Peter Gunton


Peter, your beautiful photos have been shared with hundreds of people through our social media channels. Do you have a favourite wildlife subject? 

The deer are a real favourite of mine. Sometimes I might catch the fallow deer playing or a red stag posing for the camera. I’ve really enjoyed photographing the swans and cygnets this year too. We’ve been watching the babies since they were little things on the lake and it’s been fascinating seeing them grow.  


Swans in flight by Peter Gunton


Why has Raby been so important during lockdown?  

It’s been a lifeline and most importantly it has always felt safe. Even on days when the car park seems busy, the Park and Gardens feel quiet and there is plenty of space for everyone. The staff have been fantastic in that respect, making sure there is plenty of hand sanitiser available and all the necessary measures are in place.   

Walled Gardens by Peter Gunton


Is there anything that has really stood out during your visits?   

The people who work at Raby are incredible. They always have time for you and everyone is so pleasant and helpful. There’s such a lovely atmosphere both at Raby Castle and High Force and the staff can’t do enough for you. It really does make such a difference.

View from the Gardens to the Castle by Peter Gunton

A Raby Annual Pass makes the perfect gift – or why not treat yourself to free admission for a whole year (excluding special events) plus 10% off in the Stables Shop, Cafe and Kiosk and 10% off at High Force Hotel and Kiosk.

October Half Term is the perfect time to pull on your coat, slip on your boots or wellies and head to Raby to crunch through the leaves and enjoy our wide open spaces. There’s so much to see and do while you’re here.

Scaries and Fairies Halloween Trail

Blow away the cobwebs on our family friendly Half Term trail in the Walled Gardens. Come and find the magical mythical creatures who have taken up residence in the gardens.

The trail is ideal for younger children, particularly those aged 11 and under. Dressing up is encouraged!

Admission to the trail is included in the price of a Park and Gardens (and Castle, Park and Gardens) ticket.

Buy your Park and Gardens ticket here.

Exploring the Castle

Raby Castle is one of the most impressive, intact medieval castles in the North of England. It was built in the 14th century by the powerful Nevill family and once would have been surrounded by a moat full of water, with a drawbridge across.

Look out for the original pieces of armour in the Grand Entrance Hall and discover the Old Kitchen, which was in continuous use for more than 600 years. Ask our knowledgeable guides to point out the special ledges and windows high up above the kitchen, where knights and soldiers once kept an eye out for danger.

The Castle will be open from Wednesday to Sunday during Half Term, before it closes for the season on November 1st. Buy your Castle, Park and Gardens tickets here.

Spotting deer

Deer spotting is a favourite family pastime at any time of year – and especially in the autumn, during what’s known as the rutting season. If you’re lucky enough you might see two stags locking horns (rutting) amongst the trees.

We have large herds of both Red and Fallow deer. They’re easy to tell apart because the fallow deer are smaller, and some have spots. You can learn more about the deer before you visit by downloading our deer activity sheet.

Woodland Play Area

For those who still have some energy left after running around the Deer Park and exploring our Scaries and Fairies Trail, head to the Woodland Play Area for even more climbing and scrambling before refuelling at the Stables Café.

Café and Kiosk

Our Stables Café is open every day for grab and go food, Spooktacular snacks and hot and cold drinks. Our outdoor Refreshment Kiosk will also be open during Half Term serving the same menu as the café.

We look forward to welcoming you this Half Term for lots of outdoor family fun!

As we continue our Favourite Things series, Senior Guide Keith Simpson shares his fascination with one of the most dramatic paintings in the Castle, ‘Marcus Curtius Leaping into the Gulf’ by Luca Giordano.

This imposing piece of art takes pride of place in the dining room, where distinguished guests would have been entertained.

Keith says:

What a painting! What is it all about? What relevance can it have today? Is it just some old painting by a long dead artist that is antique and antiquated.

I had no idea. My guidebook didn’t tell me much. I was clearly meant to be impressed, but why should I be? Why did it still have pride of place at one end of the Dining Room?

Lots of questions but what are the answers?

Luca Giordano was dead by 1705, so this is a pretty old painting. Born in 1634 in Naples, his career began with him learning his trade there in about 1650. In the 1670s to 1690 he worked in Florence. Between 1692 and 1702 he worked in Spain as a Court painter. From 1702 until his death he worked in Naples.

Marcus Curtius. A legend nothing more, but what a tale: after an earthquake in 362 BC a chasm opened up in the Roman Forum. The seers of Rome said it would never close unless Rome’s most precious thing was thrown into it. Marcus Curtius put on his armour, mounted his horse, drew his sword and declared “Rome can have no more precious thing than a brave citizen!” He then rode his horse into the abyss. The chasm closed, and Rome was saved. Hurrah!

What relevance does it have for a young gentleman doing the Grand Tour? It was about ancient Rome and all that was of interest to any Grand Tourist in the late 17th and early 18th Century.

What about now? Marcus Curtius gave his life to save Rome. The question in the last century, and this, is which of us would be prepared to do the same? Quite a daunting thought, and why this painting although old has a thought-provoking message for us right now.”


The painting of Marcus Curtius Leaping into the Gulf’ by Luca Giordano.


The work of art has pride of place in the Dining Room at Raby Castle.

For more stories and photos of our team’s Favourite Things from the Raby Collections, follow us on Instagram and Facebook

Why not visit the Castle and discover your favourite things? The Castle is open to visitors Wednesday to Sunday throughout October. Tickets must be pre-booked and we are running morning and afternoon sessions to help us manage numbers safely. Book Castle, Park and Gardens tickets here

Read about Castle Custodian Alan’s Favourite Things in our blog

Raby Castle is home to an incredible collection of art, artefacts and antiques which have been curated and cared for over many centuries.

Everyone who is part of the Raby family, whether staff or volunteer, has their own favourite and over the coming weeks they will be introducing these to you on our blog and social media channels.

It seemed appropriate to start this series by asking our Castle Custodian, Alan, about his favourite things in the Raby Collections.

For Alan, it is not so much a single object but the ability the Castle has to show changes in attitude and advances in technology over such long periods.

Alan says:

“With almost 700 years of history at Raby Castle, and the mantra of ‘never throw anything away’ we have a rich bounty of objects giving clues to life at the Castle through the centuries.

My favourite are those which show how servants and staff communicated.

Up until the 17th century it was common to have servants located close to great halls with the buttery, pantry and kitchens nearby. As attitudes changed, servants and their working areas moved out of sight and communication with them became more difficult.

Raby has a number of examples, some of which are still on display in our open rooms. We have many of the iconic Sprung Bells, which were operated by bell pulls and rotary levers of all different styles and controlled from great distances. It fascinates me that some bells at the top of Cliffords Tower are operated from rooms 80ft away and most cables and pulleys are still under the floors or hidden behind plastered walls.

By the mid 19th century, battery technology was developing and this saw the introduction of the Electric Bell which was then coupled with an Indicator Board. There are some great examples at Raby in our Butler’s Pantry and throughout the Servant’s Room located in the upper part of Cliffords Tower. We still have the batteries that powered these in various locations around the castle, hidden from public view.

Raby Castle also has some fine examples of speaking tubes which allowed direct communication with servants. This avoided the need to go to an indicator board first and so reduced unnecessary journeys. These would have a mouthpiece at both ends and there would usually be a whistle at the servant end to attract attention.

Telephones and small exchanges became possible from the 1880s and at Raby I understand there was a small internal exchange in the Porter’s Lodge. Unfortunately, the equipment is no longer there but a large battery bank is still in place behind the panelling. Our Butler’s Pantry has an example of a wind-up telephone and receiver made by Cox-Walker in Darlington. There are a number of Bakelite phones located in redundant offices within the castle and we hope to be able to display them at some point in the future.”


For more stories and photos of our team’s Favourite Things from the Raby Collections, follow us on Instagram and Facebook.  

Why not visit the Castle and discover your favourite things? The Castle is open to visitors Wednesday to Sunday throughout October. Tickets must be pre-booked and we are running morning and afternoon sessions to help us manage numbers safely. Book here.


Stories have been created and told at Raby for centuries and through the ages our magnificent Castle has been home and host to families and friends, knights and politicians, plotters and pacifists and artists and influencers.

During lockdown we invited our 21st Century visitors to use their imagination to create their own stories, inspired by the grand fortification that has been part of the local landscape for almost 1000 years.

Our staff and volunteers have been overwhelmed by the talent and creativity of all those who entered. We have been fascinated by the intriguing tales and mysteries that have been submitted and have enjoyed reading every single one.

Judging so many excellent entries was no easy task and we would like to congratulate everyone who took part.

The top three entries in each category have been published on our website and you can read their short stories by clicking the links below.

Thank you to everyone who took part and well done to our winners!

Raby Short Story Competition Winners 2020

Age 18 and over Category


The Painting by Stephen Murphy

Runners up

Invisible Hands by Laura  Burdon

Brew Me A Dream by Bridget Lowery

Age 12-17 Category


Hunted by Bella Deacon

Runners up

Dinner with a Song Thrush by Jessica Bellas Carter

The Lost Girl by Amber Nair

Age 7-11 Category


Grandiflax of Raby Castle by Georgina Ellis

Runners up

The Dragon Egg by Eve Wake

The Ghost of Raby Castle by Pippa McGonigal







 “One feels as if these forked cliffs of stone had something of the solemnity of a mountain top, in remembering the hundreds of years they have towered above the country, and stood unshaken as the wind howled and raved around them”.

Handbook for Raby Castle, 4th Duchess of Cleveland (1870)  

For many visitors one of the most memorable features of a visit to Raby Castle is the impressive series of towers. To celebrate this impressive aspect, the Raby Castle Team have created a new outdoor tour of the medieval architecture, with a focus on the nine magnificent towers.  

Fulfilling a combined purpose of accommodation and defence, most of the towers have stood since the 14th century and give Raby its unique character. We take a closer look at this feature of the castle architecture and delve into some of the lesser known facts about these impressive structures.

Raby Castle is one of the largest and most intact medieval castles in County Durham. Once a fortified seat of the Nevill family, since 1626 it has been the home of the Vane family, the most recent of which is the current owner, the Twelfth Lord Barnard.

Before the Norman Conquest, the site on which Raby Castle now stands was part of Staindropshire; land holdings in the possession of King Canute which he gifted to the priory of Durham. It is likely that the castle’s Entrance Hall sits on the site of an earlier Anglo-Saxon Hall, from which the building developed with eventual fortification in the 14th century.

Between the 13th and 17th centuries, royal permission was required to fortify a manor house and turn it into a castle. Raby’s ‘License to Crenelate’ was granted in 1378 but as the land fell within the Palatinate of Durham, it was granted by Bishop Hatfield rather than the monarch. The license acknowledged both the status of the family and the fortification of the building and much of the 14th century structure is still evident.

Today’s visitors enter through the gatehouse where they are met by the impressive sight of Clifford’s Tower. The tallest and largest of Raby’s 9 towers, it stands at an impressive 24m (80ft) high.  If the gatehouse was breached during an assault on the castle, Clifford’s Tower was the next point of defence; its 3m thick walls were built to withstand attack.  The naming of the tower likely originates with a strategic marriage, when in the latter half of the 14th century Euphemia Nevill of Raby married Robert Clifford of the influential Yorkshire family (who give their name to another Clifford’s Tower in the centre of York).

The next tower along the north side of the castle is the Kitchen Tower, originally built in 1360 and used daily up to the 1950s. It was originally detached from the castle interior as a precaution against the spread of fire.  Within the walls of the Kitchen Tower, about 4.5m above floor level is a cut passage-way with openings at regular intervals, a platform through which the castle could be defended. The original arrow slits were enlarged in the 17th century to form the windows that are in-situ today and were no doubt a godsend to the cooks.

The kitchen is a good point at which to think about the people who built Raby Castle. Whilst the Nevill family held the purse-strings, the development owes much of its character to the 14th century Master-Mason John Lewyn. The architectural historian Malcolm Hislop has charted Lewyns influence on monumental architecture across the north-east of England and beyond.  Today, Lewyn’s LinkedIn profile would read ‘Architect’, but when Lewyn was professionally active in the latter half of the 14th century, his role probably combined elements of engineer, draftsman, mason, project manager and surveyor. At Raby, his work included fortifications and towers, including the kitchen and chapel. The granting of the License to Crenelate in 1378 probably marked the completion of his work.

The Kitchen Tower at Raby is characteristic of Lewyns style. There are similarities with the Great Kitchen of Durham Cathedral, which was built between 1367-74 when Lewyn was principal mason to the Bishop of Durham. From the outside, the kitchen tower resembles many of Lewyn’s other towers at Raby; plain and square in shape, with neat blocks of stone that are stepped in at different levels. Writing in her Handbook for Raby Castle in 1870, the 4th Duchess of Cleveland wrote of the towers built by Lewyn,

 “Nor is there a trace of ornament to be found anywhere; as if the builders, in their stern purpose, disdained all that was not intended for use, and the severe simplicity of their work certainly shows no striving for picturesque effect”.

Journeying on from the Kitchen Tower, on the north-east corner is the tower known as Mount Raskelf, whose name comes from lands held by the Nevill family in North Yorkshire. Almost certainly one of John Lewyn’s designs,  possibly build on an earlier foundation, this tower features architectural elements that he would go on to develop in other projects, including corner turrets known as ‘bartisans’, supported by ‘squinches’ or corner arches that join perpendicular sections of wall.

In the centre of the eastern side of the castle lies the Chapel Tower; created by Lewyn to house the chapel and a guard room as well as a fortified gateway or Barbican. The Chapel Tower was altered in the 18th century when the barbican was demolished to provide a new route for carriages through the entrance hall. The structure can be seen on early 18th century engravings of the castle which show other characteristic features of Lewyn’s work in situ,  including the life-sized stone figures (known as defenders), similar to those at Alnwick Castle and removed at Raby to the Gatehouse. There may have been further similarities with Alnwick Castle’s impressive barbican which is decorated with a carving of the Percy Lion, as Raby’s featured the Raby Bull.

Tower number 5 is Bulmer’s Tower. Named after Bertram de Bulmer, the influential grandfather of the Norman heiress Isabella de Nevill who married Raby’s Saxon owner, Robert FitzMaldred in the late 12th century. Towards the top of the tower, a lower-case letter ‘b’ for Bulmer, features on the outward facing facades.  Bulmers Tower once stood isolated from the castle and is the only tower at Raby built of millstone grit. It has an unusual five-sided plan, unlike Lewyns square towers, which has been compared to similar five-sided towers in Denmark.

Passing along the southern side of the castle, Joan’s Tower in the south-west corner is named after Joan Beaufort, the daughter of John of Gaunt who married Ralph de Nevill of Raby in 1396. Half- sister to Henry IV and grandmother to Edward IV and Richard III, it is through Joan that a line to the current Royal family can be traced.  On the warmer south side of the castle, Joan’s Tower has provided accommodation into the 21st century, and centuries of enlargements and internal alterations chart the challenges of adapting a 14th century building for modern life.

The interior of the castle is accessed on the west side through the Nevill Gateway. This impressive tower contains a beautifully vaulted fortified gateway which would have included an inner and outer gate, as well as a portcullis. Machicolations or murder-holes can be seen here (as elsewhere on the castle perimeter) as a further defence against attackers. The three shields that can be seen on the Nevill Gateway (Nevill, St George and Latimer shields) are each surrounded by the ribbon of the Order of the Garter which Lord Nevill received in 1369, only 21 years after it’s creation.

To the right, the Watch Tower – our eighth tower – incorporates two small guard rooms opening onto the roof. Beyond this is servant’s hall, once the site of the garrison. It is here that the walls are strongest, being in places no less than 6m/20 ft thick.

At the heart of the castle interior lies The Keep, our final tower. Heavily defended by the exterior fortifications, The Keep was the site of domestic accommodation and facilities, including the castle’s well. Under siege, control of the water supply was critical for survival and the defences that protect this important tower is a final reminder of the dual purpose of all the towers as both fortification and living space.

The towers feature in a new outdoor Towers and Terrace Tour at Raby Castle.

For details of this and future tours exploring the history, architecture and art of Raby Castle, subscribe to our free newsletter at https://www.raby.co.uk/about-us/newsletter/


A Guide to the Towers

Clifford’s Tower, 24m (80 feet)

Kitchen Tower, 23.5m (77 feet 8 inches)

Mount Raskelf, 21.4m (70 feet 3 inches)

Chapel Tower, 22.3m (73 feet 3 inches)

Bulmer’s Tower, 23.3m (76 feet 6 inches)

Nevill Tower, 19.05m (62 feet 6 inches)

Watch Tower, 23m (75 feet 9 inches)

Keep, 19.8m (65 feet);

Joan’s Tower, 18.74m (61 feet 6 inches)


“Yet every painter’s eye must love the unsought combinations of light and shade in these great square masses of grey stone – ‘hillocks of stone’ – clustered irregularly together, with their deep angles and recesses, and the tapering watch-towers above.  Seen at a little distance from the north, they produce a really magnificent sky-line towards the west, especially when the long range of ‘battled towers’ stands out in relief against a real winter sunset”.

Handbook for Raby Castle, Catherine Lucy Wilhelmina, 4th Duchess of Cleveland (1870)  


Further reading:

Raby Castle Guidebook

Castle Builders; Approaches to castle design and construction in the Middle Age; Malcolm Hislop, Pen & Sword Books, 2016

How to read a Country House: Jeremy Musson in association with Country Life Ebury Press, 2005

The Buildings of England, County Durham;  Nikolaus Pevsner, updated by Martin Roberts. Pending publication.

Sophie joined the Leisure and Tourism team in December 2019, during our incredibly busy festive season. We caught up with her to find out how she has been settling in, and what her first six months with Raby has been like.

Where did your career take you before you joined Raby?

I joined the London Olympic Organising Committee (LOCOG) in 2011 and went on to travel working on sporting events such as the Rio 2016 Olympic games and Commonwealth Games both in Glasgow (2014) and Gold Coast (2018). After 8 years travelling, I felt it was time to come home to County Durham. I’m delighted to be able to use my extensive events experience right here in County Durham in my new role at Raby.

You joined Raby at one of the busiest times of the year – what were your first impressions?

I think people have the impression that Raby is a bit of a sleeping giant whereas the reality is it is an incredibly vibrant and exciting place to work. There is always something different going on across the Estate, and so much goes on behind the scenes to deliver the incredible variety of events that happen throughout the year.

Starting at Christmas was a really good thing – I got stuck in straight away and it meant I got to know the rest of the team very quickly. It is such a busy time of year – but I thrive on being busy! I adore Christmas – it is such a magical time, especially at Raby. I loved being part of our Fireside Stories experience and seeing the faces of our visitors as they met Father Christmas in the Grand Entrance Hall. We’ve been busy making preparations for Christmas during lockdown, and hope to be able to offer some really special experiences this year.

What has surprised you most about working at Raby?

Probably the variety of events I get to work on – it’s fantastic getting to work on so many different types of events; one day it could be a stargazing event at High Force, or a children’s activity trail, the next it could be an Italian car show at Raby Castle, a new special interest tour or a huge sporting event. So many of our events require input from different teams across the Estate – whether it’s the garden team or the forestry team, the sporting team or colleagues in the Estate office – delivering a fantastic visitor experience is very much a team effort.

I also love discovering more about the place where I work – I am incredibly lucky to based at the Castle and am fascinated by its incredibly rich history.  With over 120 rooms to explore, Im discovering something new every week!

Earlier this year I was involved with a new tour ‘The Women of Raby’ – which was fascinating. I’m looking forward to running more events like this in the future and sharing more of the untold stories of the Castle and its inhabitants.

What impact has the coronavirus pandemic had on events at Raby?

There is always so much to see and do at Raby, and we started 2020 with a jam-packed events calendar which had to put on hold in March when lockdown began.

As we have gradually reopened to the public we’ve been following government guidance and it’s great that we are now able to resume some of our events activity. Visitor and staff safety is our priority so we’ll be focusing on outdoor activities, and new experiences for our visitors. We’ve been opening the Park and Gardens for our series of Summer Late evenings which have been fantastic – such a lovely relaxed atmosphere, and I’ve been blown away by the lovely comments we’ve had from visitors.

I’m really excited about the activities we’ve got lined up for the rest of the Summer, especially our very exclusive yoga and wellbeing sessions in the garden. I’ve also had a sneak preview of the new Terrace and Towers tours which is just fascinating – visitors are in for a treat!

What do you enjoy most about working at Raby?

The fact that I get to work in a Castle – I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of my walk into work! I also enjoy working with the people here at Raby, we all support each other – it’s great to be part of such a close-knit and proactive team. Despite recent events, I really feel that I have joined Raby at a very exciting time, and I am looking forward to watching it develop as a tourism destination.

To find out what’s happening at Raby visit out What’s On page. If you would like to be the first to hear about upcoming news and events sign up to our newsletter

Raby Castle’s magnificent Walled Gardens are a peaceful haven for Raby’s visitors as they amble along its well-kept paths, watch the butterflies and bees busy in the borders, listen to the melodic birdsong and take in some remarkable panoramas across the Castle and Deer Park.

The ambience is always restful yet is constantly changing through the seasons, particularly in the vibrant Spring and Summer months when the colours and vistas alter almost on a daily basis.

Throughout lockdown our garden team worked hard to keep the gardens looking their best, ready for visitors to enjoy. We hope those of you who have not yet been able to visit us since we reopened will enjoy this video tour which gives a fabulous bird’s eye view of our gloriously peaceful gardens.

The History of the Gardens

The gardens at Raby date back to the Middle Ages when the plants grown here would have provided food for cooking and medicines for treating common ailments. A formal garden was established much later, in the mid 18th century.

Our committed gardeners nurture every plant and take great care to maintain the historic features of the Gardens. The walls were all built using locally sourced hand-made bricks and remain a key feature of the Gardens, along with the two fine old yew hedges and ornamental pond. Other features include the Conservatory, rose gardens, formal lawns and informal heather and conifer garden.

Look out for the White Ischia Fig, brought to Raby in 1786, which still survives in its specially built house and bears fruit every year.

The East Garden contains the main herbaceous border and various species of tree within the lawns, including a Tulip tree. In the summer months the spectacular rambling Wedding Day Rose, with its large clusters of creamy white roses, is in full bloom.

The Walled Gardens are open seasonally and our Annual Pass holders often tell us how much they appreciate being able to visit on a regular basis so that they can see the seasons change.

With plenty of places to sit and relax and lots of space to enjoy a socially distanced walk with family or friends, we look forward to welcoming you soon.

The Walled Gardens and Deer Park are open daily from 10am to 4pm. During the summer months we hold occasional Summer Lates, when the Park and Gardens open in the evenings, with candlelight and soft music in the Walled Gardens. Find out more about Summer Lates.

Our next Summer Late in the Park and Gardens will be held on Saturday 11th July from 6pm to 10.30pm. Tickets are limited. Book now.


Back in the 1600’s a young and adventurous Henry Vane, ancestor of Raby Castle’s current Lord Barnard, emigrated to join the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Our curator Julie Biddlecombe-Brown reveals who he was, why he went and what happened next.

First, a bit of background about the Vane family at the time

In 1626 Henry Vane the Elder, MP and official in the Royal Household, bought Raby Castle for the princely sum of £18,000.  His marriage to Frances Darcy brought the wealth that secured his rise in Court and should have guaranteed a life of relative ease for their children. This was not to be for his first-born.

Henry Vane the Younger had a remarkable life and witnessed events that shaped nations and the world. His life ended in the Tower of London in 1662, described by Charles II as “…too dangerous a man to let live …”.

We’re going to explore the life of the twenty-something Henry, in Puritan New England, and how his legacy can still be seen today  

Henry Vane the Younger was born in Essex in 1613, the eldest of eleven children. Less than one hundred years after the break from Rome, the early 17th century was a time of religious turmoil. Henry was a man of strong religious convictions and by his mid-teens he had made the conscious decision that his faith would play a central part in his life; following his conscience and devotion to God.

After completing his education at Magdalen College, Oxford, he travelled in Europe, where he visited the intellectual Protestant hubs of Geneva and Leiden.  His travels continued during his late teens as an aide to the Ambassador at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand II. On his return to England his prospects seemed bright and it appeared certain that he would follow his father’s career in the royal household. But the young Henry had other plans.

So, what inspired him to make his long and dangerous Trans-Atlantic journey?

He had never lost the spiritual resolve of his earlier teenage years and became increasingly disillusioned with what he viewed as the restrictive ceremonies and practices of the Church of England. Henry looked to the Puritan colonies of the New World as a kind of utopia. Here, he believed he would be surrounded by people who had committed to create the kind of world he aspired to; people with similar beliefs and values.  So, in 1635, at the age of 22, with his father’s eventual blessing and a three-year release from court from the King, he emigrated to New England.

Was it everything he expected it to be?

Young Henry arrived in Boston, Massachusetts on 6 October 1635, one of an estimated 20,000 English people believed to have emigrated to New England in the 1630s. He found a community that was developing rapidly and a mixture of settlers, from devout Puritans to commercial entrepreneurs.  Governance centred around the church and strict Puritan ideals that occasionally clashed with the commercial activity of the new colony. Henry was made welcome; his background and strong convictions held him in good stead, as did his advantageous connections back in England. He quickly settled into Boston life where his social rank and experience of diplomacy were put to use in in resolving disputes and supporting the governance of a growing community. Within a few months he became a freeman of the Massachusetts Corporation; perhaps more surprisingly, he was elected as Governor in May 1636 at the tender age of 23; the highest office in the colony.

Henry quickly established himself as a leader …

The Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was elected annually, and Henry set out to use his diplomatic and administrative experience to create new laws and resolve disputes amongst the colonists. During his short time as Governor, legislation was passed to establish a higher education college in the colony; an institution that would later be named after the wealthy clergyman and benefactor, John Harvard.

…although it wasn’t all plain sailing

But Henry’s passionate conviction (probably combined with his youth and inexperience) resulted in a very challenging term as Governor. Tensions were quickly escalating with the local Native American population for whom the impact of the arrival of the European colonists had many devastating consequences. Within the colony the harmonious Puritan utopia that he had dreamed of was becoming fragmented. The relationship became strained between some of the more orthodox members of the community (characterised by Henry’s deputy, John Winthrop), and others who supported greater religious freedoms, including Henry himself.

 He made friends with people who held “dangerous opinions”

Two of Henry’s close acquaintances from his short time in Massachusetts provide an insight into Henry’s beliefs and personality. Both Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson are important, yet controversial figures in the complex history of early English settlement in the New World.  Their own stories are fascinating but here we look at their relationship with the young Governor.

Roger Williams was an English clergyman with a firm belief in religious freedom. He was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635 for spreading  “new & dangerous opinions”, including a  belief that church and state governance should be kept separate, and for his disapproval of colonists who confiscated land from Native Americans. On leaving Massachusetts, he purchased land from the Narragansett people to establish the Rhode Island Colony, based on principals of religious tolerance. Ten years Henry’s senior, Williams’ conscience-led decisions clearly appealed to the young governor who supported him both in the New World and, later, back in England.

Anne Hutchinson became synonymous with a group known as the Antinomian Party. Her lifelong commitment to the Puritan cause and radical ideas meant that when she arrived in New England she began to push boundaries. Contrary to the norm, she led a Bible Study Group – sometime attracting as many as 80 people, in an age in which women were not permitted to take leadership roles. Her classes were perceived as a threat to some of the more orthodox factions of the colony who feared religious separatism. Henry is known to have attended her groups, no doubt attracted once more by the ideals of religious freedom.

However, Henry was an idealist and his days in New England were numbered

This was a step too far for many in the community who regarded his actions as compromising the position of the Governor. It was one dispute that Henry was unable to resolve and he was pressured to make a choice between his position and his ideals. Unsurprisingly his ideals won out; he attempted to resign as Governor, initially citing pressure to return to England before admitting the conflict between his political and spiritual life. He was persuaded to finish his term, but his former deputy, John Winthrop was elected for the year ahead. Anne was banished from Massachusetts and along with around 30 other families followed Roger Williams to the Rhode Island Colony.

Henry left Massachusetts for England three months later, but not before finally opposing the new Governor ‘s legislation to exclude settlers like his friends who were said to hold ‘dangerous opinions’. His time in New England taught Henry valuable lessons and despite remaining a man of strong conviction, in his later life he attempted to focus on politics rather than spirituality in his public life.

The story of Henry’s later years back in England is equally fascinating, but we will save that for another day

One final note relates to an intriguing item in the castle collections, dating from this period. Pictured here, this little volume titled THE LAWES, RESOLUTIONS OF WOMEN’S RIGHTS OR The Women’s Lawyer.  It was printed in London in 1632 and is the first work devoted exclusively to laws relating to women. It covers diverse topics from marriage to land ownership, wooing to widowhood. We don’t know when the book came to Raby Castle but it is interesting to speculate as to whether it, along with other radical 17th century pamphlets, might have belonged to, or have been read by Henry and in this case,  how much his encounter with Anne Hutchinson in the New World might have kindled an interest in the law and the position of women in particular.

Julie Biddlecombe-Brown

Sources and further reading:

  • Sikes, G., The Life & Death of Sir Henry Vane Kt. 1662
  • A Vindication of that Prudent and Honourable Knight, Sir Henry Vane. London: 1659
  • Hosmer, James K. Sir Henry Vane.  London: 1888
  • Mayers, Ruth E. Vane, Sir Henry the Younger. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, May 2015
  • N. E. Adamova, S. V. Shershneva, Discourse of early migration to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, 2017


Sir Henry Vane the Younger. Oil on Canvas. School of Robert Walker (1599-1658) ©Raby Estate


Sir Henry Vane the Younger, commemorated in a statue of 1893 in Boston Public Library. The inscription quotes John Winthrop, who despite their differences describes Henry as “a true friend of New England and a man of noble and generous mind”.


The Lawes, Resolutions of Women’s Rights, or The Women’s Lawyer. London 1632 ©Raby Estate

If you enjoyed this fascinating story from Raby’s past, check out our recent blog on the Grand Entrance Hall at Raby Castle for the Historic Houses Feature Friday campaign.


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